Moss Park armoury winter respite centre opens doors early amid 'unprecedented demand'

The Moss Park armoury will be opened as a winter respite centre Saturday evening, two days earlier than initially planned amid a deep freeze that is gripping the city.

Emergency shelter will be open for 2 weeks beginning Saturday evening

Hundreds of people have been spending the frigid nights taking shelter in temporary winter respite centres across the city. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The Moss Park armoury opened as a winter respite centre Saturday evening, two days earlier than initially planned amid a deep freeze gripping the city. 

The armoury, which falls under the purview of the federal government, was set to open on Monday as Toronto deals with what Mayor John Tory has called an "unprecedented" shelter crisis. It will remain open, 24 hours a day, for the next two weeks.

City staff reached out to federal counterparts this week as shelters and winter respite centres tried to cope with substantially increased demand. An extreme cold warning was in effect for Toronto on Saturday, with it feeling like –24 with wind chill. Overnight, though, it felt like it was below –30.

While temperatures are set to rise slightly on Sunday, it will still feel closer to –29 C. 

In addition to the early opening, other shelter and respite sites will be expanded. About 190 people spent the night at the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition grounds, though it originally was supposed to house only 150. Capacity there will be increased to 200 beds.

The respite facility at the Regent Park Community Centre will be expanded from 100 beds to 180 in coming days, while the Wellesley Community Centre will be maintained as an "overflow" warming centre, city staff said. 

Tory has come under fire in recent weeks from homelessness advocates who say the city has not done enough to address overcrowded shelters during the winter months. He'd previously been reluctant to use the Moss Park armoury as a temporary respite centre due to concern over whether the facilities would be "appropriate" given that the city does not have control over the internal operations.

Street nurse and advocate Cathy Crowe told CBC Toronto on Saturday, before Tory made the announcement, that she was encouraged staff had changed course but that there was dire need for the armoury to immediately.

"We just kept working and exposing, if you will, the shelter emergency. So now it's happened — it's a turn around," she said. 

According to Crowe, some 650 people spent Friday in emergency overnight drop in centres in "inhumane" conditions "almost like refugee camps."

Earlier this week, the city ombudsman announced she will be investigating how, on several nights late last year, people were told that shelters were full despite the fact that beds were available. Tory described it as a "miscommunication" and welcomed the probe, promising publicly that staff "will do better."

Critics of the city's response to this winter's devastating cold snap have called for 1,000 more permanent shelter spaces to be built in Toronto. 

"It's not enough to have this open for two weeks," said Crowe. "And then what? And all these emergency shelters that are open close in April. Then where are people going to go on April 15 when they close? There is nowhere for them to go."